Year in review: I packed up my stuff from New York and drove out to San Francisco. Opened (or re-opened) three restaurants. Two of which could really go nowhere due to lack of funding, but great learning experiences nonetheless. And one that I finally call home: Citizen Cake.
A conversation plays back in my head, my exit talk with Eric Ripert at Le Bernardin. Where we sat and chatted for a good half hour or so in private about life, cooking, and the future. A luxury rarely afforded at such a busy restaurant with a chef whose time is highly scheduled.
He said, “It all clicked for me here, all my years of hard work, it clicked into place for me here.”
It did not click for me at Le Bernardin, but I recall his words vividly and daily because I feel that way now. Every little thing I’ve learned along the way from every single restaurant. Including Le Club and Circa and Le Bernardin and Guy Savoy and Ecco. It now adds up.
It shapes every aspect of my kitchen today.
From the way I cook fish and meat, to how I make stocks and sauces, to what kind of team environment I want and don’t want, to what it means to mentor and train new cooks, and how to be a better chef.
And there is still so much to learn. Like how to not burn myself out. How not to burn my self. How to let go. How to trust. How to inspire. How to better manage payroll and restaurant numbers. How to keep personal life in balance (Not very good at this one yet). How to stay creative. How to stay in season. How to stay strong.
Opening a restaurant from scratch, from construction site to wow-people-are-actually-sitting-down-and-dining is a miraculous event. I sometimes look out from my very open kitchen and wonder how it all happened.
Only two months ago we were scrubbing the floors, setting up metro shelving, testing recipes, polishing pastry cases, unloading plates and dishes, ordering dry goods in bulk, hiring our first team, and staring at each other wondering how it was all going to get finished in time.
Now we have cakes in the pastry case, a vibrant and professional serving staff, a kitchen staff that is positive and talented, and food to serve for lunch and dinner. And we have Open Table so people can make reservations. What more could a chef ask for?
We survived/thirved the holidays shortly after opening our doors. Which for a restaurant that does a huge amount of specialty pastries, confections, and cakes is no laughing matter. Our amazing bakery put out all sorts of pies for Thanksgiving that decorated the walls pink in their pre-ordered carry boxes half way up to the ceiling.
People lined up on the street to get first dibs on the Christmas stollen, bouche de Noels, and eggnog cheesecake. Not to mention the ginger bread men and woman that flaunted bikinis and bright colored swim trunks. The restaurant was booked solid on New Years – no reservations on Open Table left to be made – and was filled with holiday shoppers morning, noon, and night.
And now, just when we thought we’d gasp for air, the reviewers are piling in under the radar. No one can let down their guard, not even for a second. And with the way things are today, everyone is a reviewer.
There is no such thing as a “VIP solo diner” anymore. I recall at Guy Savoy the resounding “Très, très soignier!" (very, very clean) from Chef Guy himself for solo diners that might possibly be Michelin scouts. But here in the States every person is a VIP yelper or blogger or twitterer or word-of-mouther. That’s tough for a new restaurant. But good. It’s the way it should be. Bring it on.
For me, one of the greatest gifts Citizen Cake has brought is the opportunity to work with Elizabeth Falkner. A great Chef and mentor. I love the creative freedom, I thrive on the tips and hints that make me a better chef, I appreciate the wisdom that comes from years of experience. And the female connection into the cooking world has been enormously helpful and resourceful.
My team is awesome. Two have left, but they are forever remembered in our hearts for all their hard work and energy in the early, early days. And our newest hires are brining fresh energy daily, which we greatly appreciate. We enjoy cooking together. I think it shows in the food.